Novelist, critic, essayist, poet, connoisseur of all the fine things in life, and all-round literary expert, Sir Kingsley Amis was one of the most talented and underrated writers of the 20th Century. Ranked ninth by The Times in 2008 in their list of the ‘50 Greatest British Writers’, Amis’ wit, acuity, and sheer breadth has won him adulation and awards. We take a look at ten unmissable reads by the Master of Comedy himself.
An exciting alternative vision for the future, The Alteration was so admired that Philip K. Dick proclaimed it the ‘best example of the genre.’ Set in a world where Arthur Tudor survived (resulting in the royal succession skipping Henry VIII), The Alteration is based on the premise that England remained Catholic. The novel follows Hubert Anvil, an exceptionally gifted choir boy, and his attempts to escape from his prescribed fate – namely, physical alteration so that he can fulfill his purpose as the ultimate chorister. Disturbing and thought-provoking, The Alteration is one of the finest examples of speculative fiction in print.
The first of many books that saw Amis’ tend towards a more speculative bent, The Anti-Death League is an example of Amis’ interest in James Bond and the spy genre. In The Anti-Death League, an army in an alternative present is preparing to launch Operation Apollo. Operation Apollo polarizes opinion within the camp, catalyzing the inception of the “Anti-Death League” of the title, a secretive “cult” ideologically opposed to war. The book explores the characters’ thoughts on death, war, and its relevance to life and love. Imaginative and experimental, The Anti-Death League is another remarkable foray into speculative fiction.
Cited as Amis’ forgotten masterpiece, Girl, 20 is a scathing commentary on the permissiveness of contemporary society. It tells of the mishaps of its ever-harassed protagonist, music critic Douglas Yandell. Yandell struggles both professionally and personally as he attempts to save a disintegrating marriage, acting as a moral support for both parties. A critique on the decline of music and social mores, the novel is the ultimate tragicomedy, since Amis skillfully injects black humour into tragic situations. Girl, 20 is a fine example of Amis’ comic genius and his ability to use humour within a startlingly bleak narrative.
The Green Man is Amis’ contribution to the supernatural genre, though it is written with Amis’ typical humor. Though its premise seems ordinary – the protagonist is a middle-aged alcoholic and adulterer – The Green Man shapes up to become a thought-provoking ghost story. Its investigation of the metaphysical is alternately comic and suspenseful, with scenes ranging from the irreverent, such as the protagonist’s failed threesome; to the traumatic, as with the grave-digging; to surreal, such as the protagonist’s perplexing conversation with God. The Green Man is thus a nuanced tale that questions the very nature of the world itself.
His debut novel, Lucky Jim is one of the first examples of the “campus” novel: stories that have a university setting. Inspired by what he saw when he visited Philip Larkin, when Larkin was working for the University of Leicester, Lucky Jim relates the trials and tribulations of the ever-unlucky Jim Dixon. A genuinely funny satire on the hypocrisy of higher education, it is also known for having one of the most brutally accurate descriptions of a hangover that can be found in 20th century literature. Full of acute observations and sharp witticisms, Lucky Jim is an unmissable triumph.
Winner of the 1986 Booker Prize, The Old Devils was considered by his son Martin Amis to be Amis’ best. The Old Devils recounts Alun Weaver’s relocation to his native Wales, and the reunion he shares with his former friends, all of whom continued to live locally while he was living and working away. However, the “idyll” created by their brief reunion is shattered when Weaver suddenly dies, leaving his friends to cope with subsequent fall-out. Subtle in its power and in its exploration of the frailties of interpersonal relations, The Old Devils is a must-read favourite.
So named after his first wife, Hilary Bardwell wrote One Fat Englishman on his back while on holiday. One Fat Englishman showcases one of Amis’ most dislikable creations – Roger Micheldene. A book that is both disgusting in the way it portrays excess, yet hilarious in its representation of Anglo-American relations, One Fat Englishman is a riveting read that studies bad behavior. Not only is the book well worth reading on its own merit, it is also a fascinating insight into Amis himself, who, seemingly aware of having some sort of ideological transformation, chose to express himself through autobiographical fiction.
One of the funniest of mystery novels to be found, The Riverside Villas Murder will have the reader simultaneously laughing and awestruck. Told from Peter Furneaux’s perspective, the novel follows a murder investigation and a few cases of robbery that superficially seem to be entirely unrelated to one another. Peter, during the investigation, becomes an assistant to the inimitable Colonel Manton, a wonderful tribute to the tradition of idiosyncratic detectives such as Poirot and Holmes. A light-hearted homage to the Golden Age of Mystery, it is thus filled with unusual characters, excellent plot twists, and the classic Amis humor.
Another instance of the profound effect that the Cold War and the spy genre had on Amis, Russian Hide-and-Seek is an entertaining look at a world in which the Soviets have won “World War Three” and have now become the rulers of England. The occupied, who are planning to revolt, enlist Alexander Petrovsky, a handsome and lascivious soldier who belatedly realizes that sex and politics mix very badly. An interesting attempt on Amis’ part to hypothesize on the evolution of Soviet Ideology, it is irreverent, cynical, and experimental in the best possible way.
Considered to be a re-interpretation of Richardson’s Clarissa, Take A Girl Like You is an ebulliently funny, yet nuanced, exploration of sexual relations. The “Clarissa” of the novel is Jenny Bunn, a beautiful, gauche, yet virtuous primary school teacher, who spends the majority of the novel trying to resist the seductive wiles of her Lovelace, Patrick Standish. Later accompanied by its sequel Difficulties With Girls (1988), which shows the married life of Patrick and Jenny, Take A Girl Like You is a complex and realistic portrayal of interpersonal relationships and class divide, and is certainly well worth reading.